She has won "American Idol," five Grammys, three Country Music Association female vocalist of the year awards, two Academy of Country Music entertainer of the year trophies and the hearts of millions of Americans.
But I'm here to tell you, good people, that Carrie Underwood hasn't learned how to sing yet.
Yes, I know she's scored 12 No. 1 country songs, an impressive total for someone who just released her fourth album. Yes, her voice can soar to the stratosphere and scare the crap out of any man who has done her wrong. But listening to her perform for 110 minutes Thursday night at Target Center convinced me that Underwood, at 29, is still just a strong voice who hasn't learned how to infuse her songs with either conviction or personality.
OK, that's a blanket indictment because the faithful plea "Jesus, Take the Wheel" and unfaithful screed "Before He Cheats," the two bona fide classics in her burgeoning repertoire, rang true, loud and clear on Thursday. But too often, Underwood unleashed a scream whether the song called for it emotionally or not. And how many times can you listen to a vocal explosion that is often shrill, occasionally sharp and always twangier than her other vocalizing? Ultimately, it came across as vocal grandstanding in the grand tradition of "American Idol."
While we believe that guileless Taylor Swift has been burned by many boyfriends and bad-girl Miranda Lambert has been betrayed by ne'er-do-well guys, the messages of too many of Underwood songs don't seem to connect with her personality. She's a small-town Oklahoman who became a college sorority princess, a TV talent goddess and the bejeweled wife of a pro hockey player. Don't cry for her, Middle America.
Do we buy her blue-collar instincts when she warns about bad boys in "Good Girl," her recent No. 1 tune, and "Cowboy Casanova," her 2009 chart-topper? (By the way, they are essentially the same song with different words and different rhythms.)
More believable were her blander numbers such as the unimaginative "Thank God for Hometowns," the hopelessly ordinary "All American Girl" and the sweet "Do You Think About Me," which was delivered with a modicum of conviction. No vocal histrionics were needed on these tunes.
One of her most effective efforts was "Leave Love Alone," which started with a majestic Coldplay-like pop introduction before segueing into edgy bluegrass and ultimately bursting into a bluesy, bluegrassy stomp with opening act Hunter Hayes (a Doogie Howser look-alike) singing with Underwood. That was one of the few moments that earned prolonged reaction from the crowd of 11,000 (mostly women, mostly blondes).
Despite all her prestigious trophies, Underwood doesn't connect with her audience the way Swift, Lambert and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles -- country's truly top female stars right now -- do with theirs. Heck, at the end of Thursday's show, the minute the music stopped, the applause abruptly ended, too.
In Underwood's two previous Twin Cities headline shows at the State Fair and Mystic Lake amphitheater, she gave no-frills, one-outfit shows and came across as prim, pretty and plastic. At Target Center, she offered meaningless beauty-pageant patter but at least essayed the diva route with a floating corral mini-stage, tornado-inspired drama scenes and a parade of costumes that looked like Cher rejects.
But it's hard to play the sassy, no-nonsense diva when you're just America's sweetheart.
Set list: startribune.com/artcetera @jonbream • 612-673-1719